Iceland Land of fire and ice

A few years ago, while I was working at Kaiser, a psychology resident from Iceland named Thordis came to complete her post doc hours in our department. Since I'd never met anyone from Iceland, I was intrigued and wanted to know more about her home country. She patiently explained about the culture there and attempted to teach me a few words in Icelandic. I never did learn any words but thought that someday I'd go to Iceland. I surprised Glenda with a trip to Iceland as a Christmas present. We were able to contact Thordis via email and made arrangements to have dinner with her when we were in Iceland. She was very helpful to us while we were there. It felt better and safer to know a "local."

We arrived in Reykjavik early in the morning. The day before, the city was slammed with the heaviest snowfall since 1935 which meant that the roads were filled with snow and ice. Glenda had to go to US Embassy to see if she could get her passport renewed. Despite careful preparations, Glenda realized that, even though her Chilean passport was current, her US passport had expired. Since she has dual citizenship, she is able travel out of the country but we worried that getting back into the US would be a problem. I had helpfully offered to come back to feed the dogs if she got stuck in immigration at the Seattle airport (needless to say, this humor wasn't appreciated). A quick internet search showed that she could get an emergency passport in the capital. We found the embassy in the snow and were told we had to make an appointment to have this done. Luckily, since my brother John frequently travels internationally, he had strongly advised us to get cell/internet coverage before leaving the US (this made communication possible overseas).

Downtown Reykjavik

Even though we spent quite a lot of time in Reykjavik, we did not stay in a hotel in the downtown area. Instead, we stayed in an AirBnB which was a 20 walk to town. We chose the Vesturbaejar neighborhood which I highly recommend. One of the neighborhood coffeehouses we frequented was Kaffihus Vesturbaejar (we stayed down the street).

Thordis has a sister with a wonderful jewelry shop in Reykjavik which is worth a visit. Her sister trained in jewelry making in Barcelona, Spain.

Citywalk tour in downtown. Before starting the tour, the guide asked if there were any Americans in the crowd. When some people said yes, he laughed and said "ok then, there is ice on the ground, be careful, you may slip so the tour is 'at your own risk'". I guess Americans have a reputation for being litigious.

Our guide attempts to teach us a few words in Icelandic. It is a very challenging language to learn but it is thought to be one of the purest languages in Scandinavia and has changed little since the 12th century. Modern readers can read ancient texts. Also, there are no dialects on the island.

Citywalk tour was a great way to get to know downtown Reykjavik and was an irreverent and informative tour of the city. The best part is that the tour was free. While on this tour, we learned about a dating app for Icelanders, that (jokingly) would tell potential daters if they were related to the person they wanted to date.

I found a link below which reflected what the guide told us and what we read in the National Museum of Iceland. This is definitely worth visiting. I recommend going to this at the end of the trip as this will be a nice "wrap-up."

Walking home from the mall, Glenda and I ran into 2 people and asked them directions. It turns out that the two were from South America. As soon as Glenda found out that one of them was from Chile, they both hugged each other as if they were long lost friends.
Northern lights. This picture was taken right outside our window. The conditions have to be suitable for Northern lights. Usually it has to be very cold. Some people go outside of the capital where there's less likely to be light pollution. I had thought the lights would be up most of the night with but they only showed up briefly for 20 minutes at the most. It was freezing cold and my hands went numb when trying to take a picture. There are websites and apps that predict the possibility of Northern lights and usually the local papers will have information. On the last night we were there, the city lights in downtown Reykjavik were turned off for 2 hours so people could see the Northern lights.
Northern lights
Neighborhood coffeehouse. Coffee was very strong which was great! The name of the coffee house is also the name of the neighborhood where we stayed. One thing that was interesting was that a lot of the coffee shops had vinyl records and turntables. Sometimes we'd see an iPad playing music right next to a turntable. .

Our favorite bakery was Braud and Company. The baked goods were out-of-this-world. We bought loaves of bread (in addition to pastries) to make sandwiches later.

Reykjavik from church, you can see the shadow of the spire in the foreground

Here is the bridge to get home. We stayed a 20 minute walk from downtown.

Walking home from the local supermarket market. There is a Bonus supermarket in downtown Reykjavik right near the US Embassy. Food can be somewhat expensive (roughly San Francisco prices) so we cooked the majority of our meals in the AirBnB. However, we did have a superb fish dinner with Thordis at Kol restaurant downtown.

In the background, locals would walk or play sports on the ice. We saw a group of kids playing soccer and they would slip, get up and keep playing.

When Icelandic teenagers want to be "rebellious", they don't dress appropriately for the sub-freezing weather. We saw one teenager walking on the ice with a sock on one foot while the other foot was bare.

Ash Wednesday. Young children go into stores to sing for candy. Glenda took a picture of these children right after they'd come into the coffee shop. They dressed up in Dunkin Donut costumes in this photo.
Golden Circle

Golden Circle Tour: We started off in Thingvellur National Park and walked through the continental fissure, then we went to Secret Lagoon to watch the sunset as we soaked in the mineral waters. Everyone told us to skip the Blue Lagoon and go to the Secret Lagoon. Excellent advice!

On the way home, went to Cafe Mika. It was a magical day.

Here is some information from Lonely Planet: Þingvellir National Park (, 23km east of Reykjavík, is Iceland’s most important historical site and a place of vivid beauty. The Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament, the Alþingi (pronounced ál-thingk-ee, also called Alþing), here in AD 930. The meetings were conducted outdoors, and as with many saga sites, there are only the stone foundations of ancient encampments. The site has a superb natural setting, in an immense, fissured rift valley caused by the meeting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, with rivers and waterfalls. The country’s first national park, it was made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004.”

View from our Air BnB in southern Iceland. We stayed on a horse ranch. The AirBnB was located at Heistheimar in Hella on the southern coast of Iceland. These are cute little cottages and include a kitchenette. Even though there was a cafe, we never set foot in it and made our own meals. This is located close to most of the famous attractions in Southern Iceland. There is a huge Bonus supermarket in Selfoss on the way to Hestheimer. Even though there are other supermarkets, the Bonus in Selfoss is the biggest and the best and a good place to stock up as you head south.

Sunset from our window at Hestheimr. The horses/ponies are in the background

Seljalandafoss . To the right, you can see the ice covered stairway leading to path behind the waterfall. People were slipping and sliding down the stairs but they kept going up. This is the famous waterfall that you see in most pictures from Iceland. Of course, magazine pictures are taken in summer, but, since we are "off-season travelers" we saw everything covered in ice. Still there were lots of people coming to see the falls.
Skagafoss falls.

Eyjafjallajökull Visitor Centre was recommended by Thordis, it was worth a visit.

“This centre, about 7km before Skógar, is on a farm on the southern flanks of Eyjafjallajökull which was impacted by the 2010 eruption. A 20-minute film (usually in English) tells the family's story, from the ominous warnings to the devastating aftermath of the flooding ash. Movie snippets include tender family moments and highlights from the team of local rescuers that dug the farm out.

This was an amazing film and story of overcoming adversity. Totally worth the 850 ISK

Famous black sand beach in Vik, most southern point in Iceland. This is view looking west, most published travel photos are from the beach to the right looking east.

It was very, very cold and windy (we almost thought we were back on a beach in Northern California).

Icelandic ponies and sheep. Icelandic wool is very popular throughout the world but super expensive. By the way, Icelandic ponies love cookies and after Glenda gave one a small piece of a cookie, it followed her around.

We went from Hestheimer to the tourist attractions on the Golden Circle. We went to Geysir to see the geysers which were very crowded but impressive nonetheless. There were tons of tour buses and it was off season. Still, this was a place of beauty with the snow capped mountains in the background. It was funny to see the other tourists who had also packed sandwiches, and were enjoying their goodies outside. Glenda was tempted to boil eggs in the thermal water at 180 degrees f, but we didn't have a proper bag to do it in.


After Geysir, we went to Gulfoss and had our sandwiches in the parking lot. These falls were totally worth the drive and offered panoramic views of the mountains contrasted against the frozen turbulence of the falls. We were both feeling somewhat tired (remember that driving in Iceland takes 100% energy) so we spent a lot of time in the cafe overlooking the falls. I'm glad we did as it gave us time to "take in" the scenes surrounding us. We also enjoyed free flowing coffee with caramel apple cake. Later, we drove back to Reykjavik to stay in our totally cool AirBnB. Of course, we got lost as Google and Garmin told us completely different things. However, usually Google was more accurate.

Gulfoss Falls. "Foss" means waterfall in Icelandic.

We have come up with some random travel tips based on our experiences here. We also found it helpful to look at the tips posted by others and used many of the suggestions which made our trip much easier. Here is our attempt to "return the favor" and make suggestions to future winter travelers to Iceland.

1. Bring lots of cold weather clothes (no kidding) but most importantly, for fellow Californians out there, bring a scarf as the wind can be fierce

2. Two sets of long underwear (as others have suggested) since we needed to wear everyday.

3. When you are here, always have at least 10 or 15 coins of the 100 ISK (Icelandic Kroner) size as you will need to use these for parking in Reykjavik (everywhere in downtown). Yes, you can use credit cards but sometimes the machines are broken and won't accept credit cards. Also, some of the WC (bathrooms) in the National Parks and other tourist areas have turnstiles blocking your access until you deposit 2 x 100 ISK coins into the slots. Do you really want to fumble with the finicky change machine (we had to insert a 500 ISK bill into to the change machine 7 times-turning it 'this way and that, flipping, straightening out the bill, etc.-before it worked) to get the proper coins when you really have to use the restroom after a long drive?

4. Try to stay in an AirBnB just outside of the downtown and just walk into town, it is a lot less stressful, especially if you are relatively inexperienced in snow driving as I am.

5. Go the Bonus supermarket in town (it is one block up from the Embassy of the United States) on Laufasvegur Street and buy your food.

6. Try to get a place with a kitchen.

7. Go to Harpa, it is a beautiful place. We saw the Freddie Mercury Tribute.

8. Skip Blue Lagoon, we didn't go since it was under construction. Instead visit Secret Lagoon after 5:30 PM which (after the tour bus crowds have left), watch the sunset from the mineral bath, and then Cafe Mika on the way back to Reykjavik.

9. Call your carrier and get an international plan or a local card, it saved us tons of time researching things.

10. If you rent a car, get the GPS (obviously) but, also be prepared to use Google liberally for walking around town or driving places on the island. Our Garmin GPS simply did not recognize many of places we wanted to go even though it was rented at the airport in Reykjavik and even after a local we know here showed us how to convert some Icelandic letters into English (for instance, the odd looking 'p' is pronounced as "th" and spelled accordingly). However, sometimes, the Garmin was correct and Google was completely lost. This happened to us yesterday where both our phone and Garmin gave us contradictory advice. So, use both and hope for the best. Besides, it wouldn't be traveling if you didn't get lost once in a while, would it?

Gulfoss falls

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